The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present Hardcover – March 27, 2012
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“Eric Kandel has succeeded in a brilliant synthesis that would have delighted and fascinated Freud: Using Viennese culture of the twentieth century as a lens, he examines the intersections of psychology, neuroscience, and art. The Age of Insight is a tour-de-force that sets the stage for a twenty-first-century understanding of the human mind in all its richness and diversity.”
—Oliver Sacks, author of The Mind’s Eye and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
“In a polymathic performance, a Nobel laureate weaves together the theories and practices of neuroscience, art and psychology to show how our creative brains perceive and engage art—and are consequently moved by it. . . . A transformative work that joins the hands of Art and Science and makes them acknowledge their close kinship.”
—Kirkus Reviews (STARRED)
“A fascinating synthesis of art, history, and science that is also accessible to the general reader. A distinctive and important title that is also a pleasure to read”
—Library Journal (STARRED)
“Engrossing … Nobel-winning neuroscientist Kandel excavates the hidden workings of the creative mind. Kandel writes perceptively about a range of topics, from art history—the book’s color reproductions alone make it a great browse—to dyslexia. … Kandel captures the reader’s imagination with intriguing historical syntheses and fascinating scientific insights into how we see—and feel—the world.”
“A fascinating meditation on the interplay among art, psychology and brain science. The author, who fled Vienna as a child, has remained captivated by Austrian artists Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, each of whom was profoundly influenced by Sigmund Freud and by the emerging scientific approach to medicine in their day … [calls] for a new, interdisciplinary approach to understanding the mind, one that combines the humanities with the natural and social sciences.”
“Eric Kandel’s book is a stunning achievement, remarkable for its scientific, artistic, and historical insights. No one else could have written this book—all its readers will be amply rewarded.”
—Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education
“Eric Kandel’s training as a psychiatrist and his vast knowledge of how the brain works enrich this thoroughly original exploration of the relationship between the birth of psychoanalysis, Austrian Expressionism, and Modernism in Vienna.”
—Margaret Livingstone, Professor of Neurobiology, Harvard Medical School
“This is the book that Charles Darwin would have produced, had he chosen to write about art and aesthetics. Kandel, one of the great pioneers of modern neuroscience, has effectively bridged the ‘two cultures’—science and humanities. This is a task that many philosophers, especially those called ‘new mysterians,’ had considered impossible.”
—V. S. Ramachandran, author of The Tell-Tale Brain
“Eric Kandel has created a masterpiece, synthesizing brain, mind, and art like no one has before.”
—Joseph LeDoux, NYU, author of The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self
“[This book] offers not only a stunning organic (in every sense of the word) view of fin de siecle culture but also opens new vistas in bioesthetics. It explores the often shocking neurology of the beautiful. And it shows how artist and scientist interlace in the common quest to discover the innards of reality. ‘I don’t render the visible,’ said Paul Klee, ‘I make visible.’ He echoed Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Euclid alone looked on beauty bare.’ Eric Kandel is of that company.”
“Nobel laureate Eric Kandel’s path-setting exploration of the connections between neuroscience and the painters Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka establishes a new frontier in the study of this all-important historical period. The shift toward a biological conception of self, which began in Vienna over a hundred years ago, has since decisively shaped our understanding of human nature.”
—Jane Kallir, director, Galerie St. Etienne
“With infectuous enthusiasm and limitless reverence for his multiple subjects, Kandel deftly steers the reader through a vast and inviting territory of science, the creative process, the mind, emotion, eroticism, empathy, feminism, and the unconscious. Years in the making, this highly readable book presents a magisterial study of brain, mind, and art.”
—Alessandra Comini, University Distinguished Professor of Art History Emerita, Southern Methodist University
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After that, however, the book takes an abrupt turn into brain biology—not surprising, in fairness, since author Kandel is a Nobel Prize-winning expert in neurobiology—and there it stays. First, Kandel examines exhaustively how the brain processes visual information to create what we think of as reality. (Obviously the other senses contribute to that picture as well, but Kandel does not discuss them.) He then builds on this to consider how the brains of viewers react to art, and he shows how Klimt, Schiele, and Kokoschka, among others, instinctively drew on those hard-wired patterns to make viewers respond emotionally to their work.
How much you like this book will depend on how interested you are in that subject matter. Kandel explains his material clearly and is not overly technical; I believe that the book would be understandable to anyone who is used to doing science reading at the level of, say, Discover magazine or maybe Scientific American. However, I found it very dry, lacking the description of personalities and milieu that made the first part so intriguing. Somewhere in part 2 (of five) I gave up, concluding, as an apocryphal little boy is supposed to have said of a child’s science book that he got as a Christmas present: “It told me more about penguins than I wanted to know.”
This is an excellent, but surprising, book. Its excellence has been documented by the many reviewers who agree with my five star rating. On the other hand, I would argue that a number of the book's negative reviews were written by persons who overlooked its very significant surprises, clearly stated in the book's closing chapter.
Foremost among these is a very clear rejection of that form of reductionism known as eliminative materialism; the view that the "mentalese" vocabulary of folk psychology is fated to be replaced by the lexicon of a "mature neuroscience."
"For every parent discipline such as psychology, the study of behavior, there is a more fundamental field, an anti-discipline -- in this case, brain science – that challenges the precision of the methods and claims of the parent discipline. Typically, however, the anti-discipline is too narrow to provide the more coherent framework or the richer paradigm needed to usurp the role of the parent discipline, whether it be psychology, ethics or law. The parent discipline is larger in scope and deeper in content and therefore cannot be wholly reduced to the anti-discipline, although it ends up incorporating the anti-discipline and benefitting from it. This is what is happening in the merger of cognitive psychology, the science of mind and neural science, the science of the brain, to give rise to a new science of mind.” p. 505
Further, whereas Kandel, in a personal conversation early in 1985, held to a firm and somewhat threatening distinction of "studies of science" and "studies of scientists," severely denigrating the latter, in 2012, he opens the door for a well-informed sociology of science:
"Rather than seeing a unified language and useful set of concepts connecting key ideas in the humanities and the sciences as the inevitable outcome of progress, we should treat the attractive idea of consilience as an attempt to open a discussion between restricted areas of knowledge. In the case of art, these discussions might involve a modern equivalent of (a Viennese salon) … artists, art historians, psychologists, and brain scientists talking with one another … in the context of new academic inter-disciplinary centers at universities." p. 506
The passages I've quoted seem to pull the rug out from under many of Kandel's critics. Far from an imperialist neuroscience of art, he seeks to promote a tolerant conversation involving neuroscientists, artists and historians and philosophers of art.
In the spirit of such conversation I might ask Kandel to clarify the nature, and direction, of the vectors of influence connecting Viennese painters at the turn of the 20th century and Harvard neuroscientists in the decades following WWII.
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Vienna, con tanti medici e psichiatri all' avanguardia mondiale (si possono citare tra i più noti, Rokitanski e Freud), fine '800 e primi
decenni del '900, per intrecciare e spiegare il progresso comune nell' estetica dell' arte, nello studio del costume, nel campo della
medicina, nelle scoperte sul cervello. Da questa sintesi iniziale l' autore prosegue, sempre miracolosamente tenendo tutto assieme,
svolgendo il divenire degli avanzamenti nelle varie discipline e nel modo di interpretarli, fino ai nostri giorni. E' un grande capolavoro che consiglio a tutti quelli che hanno un base di cultura artistica e/o medica e/o sociale per arricchirsi in modo enorme.
Lo consiglio pure ad una parte più piccola della popolazione: a chi ha avuto un ictus ischemico al cervello (come me, in discreta
misura ricuperato) per rendersi conto di cosa gli sia successo.
One thing that bothered me, as I read it, was the persistent Freudian angle in the writing. This is not necessarily disqualifying, but should make any attentive reader wary. The auther clearly has the highest respect for Freud's ideas about the subconscious and its role in art, and although he clarifies the by now outdated nature of Freud's psychiatric speculations and discloses the unscientific nature of the bulk of Freud's thought, his eagerness to frame topics from a point of reference of Freud, from Freud, leads one to wonder to what extent one is being provided the best possible understanding of the truth.
Anyone looking to deepen their understanding of neurology, perception, and the history of fin-de-siecle Viennese art would cherish this book. Anyone looking for a book about neuroscience alone would probably regret buying this book.
Hay que leerlo en inglés, pero merece la pena.